Visualize yourself conducting an experiment.  You are standing in a room with two chimpanzees.  Using sign language you ask them to walk to the table and bring you a plastic token. Both understand and comply.  They’ve done it before, many times. But this time Chimp A gets rewarded with a juicy, delectable, much-craved grape.  Chimp B gets a stale carrot. Repeat.  Same chimps. Same task. Same rewards.  How long before chimp B gets upset about not getting a grape and stops bringing you tokens?  Not long.  Just like humans, chimps expect fairness.

Michael Lewis, in Boomerang, dissects the Greek financial tragedy and discovers that most Greeks were complicit in accumulating debilitating public debt because everyone tolerated tax evasion, unfunded pensions, bribes, kickbacks, nepotism, and disrespect for whistle blowers.  These attitudes and behaviors became normal and expected, Lewis contends, for Greeks: everyone did it, so it didn’t feel unfair when someone else did it, so everyone did it.

Fairness underpins community.  Without fairness, civic commitment declines.  Why sacrifice for the greater good—the commonwealth—if the rewards are not fairly distributed?  Unfairness destroys hope: no matter what I do, the outcomes will not reflect what I deserve.  If I expect to be exploited by an unfair system, why should I commit to it and play by the rules? At some point, when I am in need, an unfair system may  ignore or abandon me.

Fairness. Hope. Commitment.  They are interlinked.  A community cannot survive without them.

What is fairness?  Does it require income equality?  No.  Not in America.  Fairness requires equal access to opportunity and liberty.  We expect—we demand—that government intervene if conditions are unfair, if conditions prevent equal access to opportunity and liberty.  That’s a tall order for govermnet.

Federal laws and regulations reflect the ideals and values of our nation. They define what we believe in.  They articulate the opportunities we want fairly distributed.  These values and ideals are decided politically, through our system of governance.    They protect what we cherish, which includes free speech, safe water, safe food, civil rights, biodiversity, freedom of religion, wilderness, property rights, and literacy.  We are free to chose these societal ideals together, through a democratic process that (ideally) provides everyone fair access to influence the collective choices.  And once that choice is made, we all respect and live by it.

Of course we also believe in individual liberty—the land of the free, the home of the brave.  Conflict between the individual and the collective is uncomfortable but inevitable; but if we are to thrive as a nation, the collective takes precedence. People are free to believe, act, feel, and shop in ways that satisfy their individual preferences as long as they don’t harm someone else and as long as they don’t violate the ideals that define our community—a house divided will not stand, E pluribus unum, one nation with liberty and justice for all.

The current, divisive political climate reflects more than uncomfortable chaffing between individual liberties and collective ideals; we are redefining our community.  We are debating fundamental values and ideals that define who we are as a collective: family values, the role of religion, obligations to environmental commons such as air, water and climate, the role of government, and our trust in science.  Let’s do so honestly, fairly, and with an eye on the prize: the future we will share.

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Hull is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability http://cligs.vt.edu/
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